Flames above Tokai

The first week of March 2015, Cape Town News and Social media was dominated by news of a 300 hectare fire on the Peninsula mountain chain on the hottest day in 100 years, killing wildlife, burning vineyards, destroying homes and resorts. What a tragedy the reports say. But did it have to be this way? Was it unexpected?

No. Fynbos must burn every 7 to 15 years. Less than 7 years and certain slower growing species never mature and the diversity reduces. Longer than 15 years and the faster growing species get crowded out by the slower ones. The longer we wait, the bigger the biomass (wood load) and the fiercer the flames and more difficult to control the fire will be.

And no, it is not a crisis for the animals or the plants. Most of the animals run away. The plants will grow again. Many of them need fire to germinate. It’s not an environmental disaster. It is normal part of fynbos.

The last really big fire was year 2000, so this fire came bang on time. As the biomass goes up, the harder to put it out. As the temperature goes up (to 45 degrees on Tuesday) the harder to put it out. No surprise. Should have been predicted. Something tiny like someone throws a cigarette out a car window and the whole mountain goes up in flames. Arson is suspected. Accident or arson, the mountain was waiting to burn, and what could have been a manageable fire became dangerous and out of control. The fire on the mountain was not an environmental disaster. It became a disaster for people because the biomass was too high and it thus became almost impossible to stop from spreading to homes adjacent to the mountain.

So what should we have done: We should have had controlled burns and or/hacks every 7 years of smaller sections of the same land. Why didn’t we? Answer: Because, if they do a controlled burn and someones house gets burned down, then whoever started the fire is liable and must pay. So the authorities don’t like the risk of doing controlled burns. The risk is expensive. Much more expensive than helicopter fuel. It is millions per house and hectare of vineyards burned.

And why is it such a risk?


* Building houses with materials that can easily burn next to the mountain – many out of wood. This includes the highly flammable permanent camp sites of the Table Mountain National Park.
* Failing to cut the bushes around those houses and on fire breaks making it easy for fire to spread from the mountain onto the houses.
* Planting easily combustible valuable agriculture right next to the mountains (vineyards and forestry plantations). Vines take 7 years before they give fruit. Forestry takes maybe 10-15 years to grow. If one planted an annual crop, then the fire would burn only one years crop.
* Doing high density development right next to the mountain. In certain instances, political leaders have approved higher density developments adjacent to the mountain contrary to the professional advice given them.
* In some cases, there are Pine plantations right next to the houses. Bluntly they shouldn’t be there. They should be cut down.

So really. It shouldn’t be a drama. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We must salute the heroes who risked and in some cases gave their lives fighting this fire, but we need to plan to stop this scenario happening again.

Despite the fact that mountain fynbos fires are come regularly and predictably, I have never seen an Urban Edge Environmental Impact Assessment, Architectural Guideline Document or Town Planning Guideline seriously addressing fire risk mitigation.  It is going to come again.   Highest risk are the first row of houses that back directly onto the mountain and do not have a road or other houses above them.


* Now we need to systematically do a controlled burns on the rest of the mountain as soon as the weather is a bit cooler.
* We need to cut down most of the vegetation in the gardens next to the mountain.
* When there are Town Planning approval requests on the Urban Edge, we need to either reject these or put conditions of approval that lower fire risk.
* Insurance companies could change their insurance risk rating for next to the mountain and even more so for wooden construction. Those who buy there need to understand the risks.
* We need to put Planning, Building regulations and Town Planning guidelines in place to stop flammable construction near the mountain.

* Constructing fire reservoirs and hydrants above the level of the houses on slopes to help put the fire out and create wet areas to limit spread.
* Reconsider fire liability legislation to allow for more controlled burns and/or budget or insure against such risk.
* Those who have built with risky building materials next to the mountain need to consider re-construction or cladding to reduce fire risk.

RESPONSIBLE CONSTRUCTION: For whatever reason, wooden construction is more common adjacent to the mountain than elsewhere.  Probably because the mountain edge attracts nature lovers, who prefer wood as a more ‘natural feeling’ product and also appreciate lush gardens around their wooden houses. This is foolish.

But even a normal brick and mortar home with a regular peak roof with wooden trusses and eaves will likely burn given a mature wood load. The type of construction needed adjacent to the mountain needs to be brick and mortar with metal windows, and pelmets around the roof edge (as commonly made with flat roofs) rather than overlapping wooden eaves. If people want eaves to stop the summer sun, they can use flat concrete slab on the roof extending out beyond the windows. More expensive than wood, but necessary.